Let’s get one thing out of the way: The feature directorial debut of Todd Kellstein is guaranteed to court controversy, or at least some seriously heated debate, after its premiere. Though his film lightly touches upon the question of whether the audience is witnessing a culture’s reckless exploitation and endangerment of children, Buffalo Girls is far more interested in demonstrating how, for 30,000 child Muay Thai boxers and their families, the sport means a potential ticket out of poverty. For this review, we’ll leave the incompletely explored, contentious child welfare questions to the social workers and focus on the story being told.
As a documentary, Buffalo Girls is comparable to Hoop Dreams—not just in its featured subjects’ athletic aspirations, but in the way the filmmaker allows his engaging kids, eight-year-olds Stam and Pet, define the narrative. Both are champions in the girls’ boxing division; each is shown to possess a unique edge along the grueling circuit to the championship, which ultimately (re)matches them in the ring.
Stam—on the shorter side—is at the bottom of her weight bracket, but has proven that speed and tenacity are assets more valuable than size. Pet, born with a heart condition, made a miraculous recovery during a growth spurt and took naturally to the sport. Each of their families has vested interest in their daughters’ victories beyond that of parental pride. A win for Stam means her family can finish building their home (currently only a foundation, walls and roof), and for Pet’s, it means making ends meet after her father was struck by a car while on foot and is laid up. Both sets of parents are depicted as loving and genuinely concerned with their child’s happiness and safety (with only a touch of Soccer Mom ego).
More than simply battle-ready gladiators—try to not feel exhausted when beholding the number of crunches they can do—Stam and Pet are kids, and girls, at that. While Pet’s grandmother rolls her eyes at her granddaughter’s lack of femininity, the kids play, watch the communal TV, and enjoy choosing their favorite outfits. They’re shown to be shy, charming, and deeply curious in turn. Basically, they’re just children, outside of the competitions.
With its scant 64-minute running time, there’s little opportunity to flesh out the community and workings of the sport itself. A bookie and referee are both interviewed; the bookie confirms it’s money that drives the proceedings. The referee confirms there is substantial risk of injury to the children, but is committed to stopping fights if they appear headed in that direction. However, a good amount of screen time is dedicated to footage of the tournaments themselves, which in turn help illustrate the combatants’ distinct skill sets.
Though getting to a match later in the film takes Pet through the red light district—again brushing past the questions concerning the fate of so many failed female Muay Thai competitors—Kellstein keeps the chronicle tightly focused on the emotional response of one of his little warriors as she suffers the heartbreak of losing the bout. That Buffalo Girls makes its stand as an empowering journey of perseverance and champion’s spirit, rather than a reflection on the larger societal underpinnings is not to its detriment. Kellstein is wise enough to know that conversation will bubble over, regardless. In the meantime, the audience has been delighted to spend some time with a couple of remarkable young ladies.
Director: Todd Kellstein
Writer: Todd Kellstein
Starring: Stam Sor Con Lek, Pet Chor Chanachai
Release Date: Nov. 14, 2012 (Limited)